America On Wheels Allentown museum drives to 10th year as destination
When Dave Bausch told me 20-plus years ago that there was a move underway to build a new automotive museum in Allentown, I was thrilled.
Bausch said they were looking into property at Lehigh Landing and the museum would be the keystone of the Allentown waterfront development.
Cars, driving and drag racing have been part of my life, starting with as a teenager on the team operating drag races at Convair Airport (Allentown Queen City Municipal Airport) in 1955-56 as a member of the Lehigh Valley Timing Association. I operated a car wash-gas station and vehicle rental company in the 1970s. Then in retirement, I worked for an area Chevrolet dealership, transporting vehicles between dealerships and auctions. Always cars!
Ray Holland donated the office building that formerly housed the Abogast & Bastian Meat Packing Company to the museum. Jack Curcio, former CEO of Mack Trucks, took hold of the project and ran with it. Building a museum board of community leaders was the focus to raise funds to bring the project to reality. A general manager was hired to coordinate financing, grant-writing and startup planning.
All that is history. Today, that old office building houses a world-class museum, America On Wheels, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What a masterpiece Curcio and his team created. They built a spectacular modern addition to the old classic office building and set in motion the activities necessary to opening a new cultural attraction in Allentown, Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania.
In 2006, Linda Merkel, as Executive Director, took over responsibility for the day-to-day operations. In April 2008, the grand opening kicked off this new automotive historical center.
When you visit the site at Front and Hamilton streets you will see not only old and classic cars (plenty of them), but will view an exciting collection of automobilia and fine art.
The building is 43,000-square-feet. The museum has more than 23,000-square-feet of exhibit space in three main galleries and several smaller exhibits. There are more than 75 cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles in the museum. Exhibits change every six months.
One of the notable innovations at the site is the 1950s HubCap Cafe. This lunchcounter and dining room was obtained from a former drug store in Indiana and reassembled like new on the second level of the museum. America On Wheels makes the cafe available to the community for parties, receptions, weddings and meetings.
The South Gallery showcases Guy’s Garage, where visitors view a complete old-time garage scene including the workbench and tools in addition to an antique car.
One of the earliest self-powered vehicles invented in the United States is on display. Henry Nadig built the motorized carriage in his shop along Fourth Street in Allentown in 1889. At 129 years of age, the exact vehicle, not a replica, is on display for visitors to see.
The importance of Mack Truck “wheels” to the history of the city is not overlooked. Showing off their famous bulldog emblems, Mack trucks of all descriptions and Mack fire engines are eye-popping exhibits.
Memories of the community of 50 years ago, especially its drag-racing history, flow from the Lehigh Valley Timing Association (LVTA) tribute to club mentor and entertainer Dopey Duncan. Videos of the LVTA Convair Airport Drag Races run continuously. The exhibit is in the main concourse.
The museum has hosted numerous car shows and displays in the parking lot at the building. These include the annual tribute to Dorney Park and Mahoning Valley racetracks and the Heavy Equipment Petting Zoo. Kids of all ages get the chance to see large construction vehicles up close, including the opportunity to climb on and let their imaginations run the equipment. “Cruising Returns to Allentown” will be held 4-8 p.m. July 21.
Keeping the exhibits new and fresh is a challenge, but a creative volunteer “exhibit and collection’s committee” sees to it that new themes are scheduled far in advance to keep the showplace fresh and new.
On exhibit through October is “Cars of Rick Hendrick of NASCAR Fame.”
In recent years, two heavy-hitters joined the America On Wheels effort. Italian businessman Nicola Bulgari and General Motors retired Vice President Ed Welburn have added their substantial clout to the museum efforts.
Bulgaria’s first service to the museum was financial, contributing a big reduction in the museum debt.
Meanwhile, Welburn created his first display by pulling “Transformer” pieces from all over the country. Visitors saw a show that appeared at America on Wheels for the first time anywhere.
New neighbors RB Collection in the former A&B-Kline building are bringing antique auto sales and restoration services to Front Street, across from America On Wheels.
The mission of the museum is education. America On Wheels has provided schools an alternative, hands-on learning environment with creative projects and educational programs to supplement what the students are learning in school.
What a source of pride for citizens of Allentown to have an attraction of this quality, national in scope, right here in our city.
For 10 years, the museum remains volunteer-based. As a museum volunteer, I hope every family in the Lehigh Valley will make a habit of visiting America On Wheels once or twice a year to see the changing exhibits.
America On Wheels, 5 N. Front St., Allentown. Summer Hours (April through December): 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 610-432-4200
Wally Ely is vice president of the Lehigh Valley Timing Association, which created the drag racing display at America On Wheels. He has been a volunteer at AOW since its inception. Ely, who is retired from a career in bank marketing and television video production at RCN, and his wife Suzanne live in Allentown.